For two years you and your husband take turns traveling to your parents’ home on weekends to be with your ailing father and to help your overwhelmed mother. You cook for your father, and during the week you collect recipes and think about what you will feed him next. You tell yourself you don’t want it to be over, because you know what the end means, but you want desperately for this all to be over. Each time you say goodbye to your father, you feel you are rehearsing for a bigger, final performance.
For a while you are still able to teach classes with some regularity. You grade papers in hospitals and on planes. In chemotherapy he tells you to go easy on your students. In class you teach Hamlet and manage to talk about the ghost without tearing up. “Is he a ghost or a demon?” you ask your students. You tell them not to be intimidated by Shakespeare. You say, “Enter into the story without fear.”
You have been with the dying before. You helped care for both your great-grandmothers, one of whom you really loved. You have sat with elderly friends as they told you their regrets and wept in despair. Your father never cries. He never looks scared either. When doctors show up, he reacts with mild curiosity.
When he was first diagnosed with brain cancer, he told you he didn’t want a lot of wailing. “Let’s just take this as it comes,” he said. “Let’s not get all emotional.” You stood with him at his favorite place in Pass Christian, Mississippi, under the three magnolia trees he’d planted after Hurricane Katrina flattened his house. He said he had maybe three years left. That was two years ago.
Now you cook and bake for him, and you don’t leave out the salt or butter. He smiles at even the simplest sandwich for lunch. He says, “Ohhh,” to every plate of your food, and he can still raise a glass of wine for a toast, his elegant fingers holding the stem.
He calls you, your mother, and your sister his “three angels.” Your mother spends a lot of time on the phone with doctors and insurance companies. Your sister takes care of the mounting paperwork, organizing the help, visiting after work when she can. A nurse comes and asks who is your father’s primary caregiver. You say he has three.
When he has the hiccups, you lead him calmly through a breathing exercise. Your mother plays along, too. You all take deep breaths. Hold them. Let them out. You know that anxiety causes these hiccups — that and the spreading cancer — but you don’t tell him this, because he says he’s not afraid. You google “hiccups” and read the remedies. Along with him you try sitting up straight, plugging your ears with your fingers, and breathing out through your nose. Finally, just for the hell of it, you pull on his nose, and it works. He gets into bed and draws the covers up to his chin and sighs. He says, “Get more Google stock on Monday.”
There will be times when you want to collapse, but when you visit him, smile. Listen, don’t speak, when he tells you he sees images behind his closed eyelids of a car’s insides and worms in a toilet. His eyes are still a brilliant blue. “I have no fear of any of this,” he says, holding his arms out with his palms up, just the way Manet painted Jesus right off the cross.
Save your grief for later, after you’ve kissed him and your mother good night and made sure they are safe in their beds; after you’ve done the dishes, fixed the dishwasher, and started yet another grocery list. Go alone to the bed and kneel beside it in the dark. Bury your head in the blankets so no one can hear you cry and beg God to be merciful. You think about the men you saw praying in Istanbul, their foreheads bruised from hitting the ground. Out loud you say an Our Father.
You think of your father hating the cane, then loathing the walker, then despising the wheelchair, and finally the bed. You and he used to joke, Why would anyone ever leave bed? You can never make this joke again.
With great effort he sits up, gets to his chair, bathes, and wheels himself to the kitchen to join you, your mother, and your sister. The wheelchair marks the rug. You don’t know that this will be his final trip to the table.
You go back to your home, your husband, and your son. You teach what will be your last class this year. You and your students consider Act III, Scene 2 in Hamlet. “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action,” you read aloud, thinking all the while that for some events there are no words. You wonder with your students whether Hamlet’s actions are noble. It becomes clear they are, you think, only when he reaches that “sad height” of dying. To be or not to be in this world, our souls are clearly everlasting and worth all the torment and heartache.
Your father falls on the bathroom floor and can’t get up, and your mother calls you. They ask you to come and stay with them. You barely have to think about the decision. Your husband takes over your teaching in addition to his own work. He is your savior, your hero. Your fifteen-year-old, suddenly sounding like a man, tells you to help his grandfather. You secretly wish you could run away from everyone.
When he has a seizure — his third — while shaving and slumps in your arms, you feel out of your depth. You cannot support his weight safely. Calmly you tell your mother to call 911. While you wait for help, you put the razor away and drain the sink of its foamy water. You stay with him as he turns ghostly white. You kiss his head and say over and over, “I’m here, I’m here.” You cover him with soft towels, hope that his pale cheeks will redden, pray that he will come back to you. This isn’t the way to say goodbye.
You help the first responders bundle him burrito-like on a stretcher. “I’d just finished shaving,” he tells them. He will say this over and over. “I’d just finished shaving.”
The men give you a two-page handout called “Safety during a Seizure” and say he is at a high risk for falling. You want to tell them, He is already falling, falling, falling, and nobody can help him get back to where he was before.
Swarms of new people are now a part of your life: occupational therapists, physical therapists, in-home nurses. You try to make their visits pleasant, even fun, but your father is confused about who they are.
“Someday you’ll have to tell me how all this happened,” he says.
He begins to lose words. He calls fruit “bridges” — “Check what kind of bridges we have.” But he can still raise his head from his pillow to sip his coffee, which must be thickened to make swallowing easier. You stop saying, “Remember when . . . ?” He stares at the ceiling, his index finger to his lips. He does this when he is deciding on something.
The treatments are not shrinking the tumors as they did before. After a year and a half he says, No more treatments, no more doctors, no more trips to the hospital. You are simultaneously relieved and petrified.
You live in aprons and always have the crockpot on so that you can be with him and not in the kitchen. You make chicken cacciatore, minestrone, beef stew. Comfort food. You sit with him. You watch him look at his hands as if he has never seen them before, as if he is no longer attached to his body. You wonder if he can tell the difference between dreams and reality.
Within weeks a palliative-care specialist replaces the physical therapist; then a hospice nurse replaces the palliative-care specialist.
The tumors are like cobwebs, a doctor explained to you, back when your father was first diagnosed. They didn’t use the C-word yet. It was a mass, spots, and sometimes tumors. One was in the frontal lobe, the other deeper, near the base of his brain, in the “high-rent district.” The X-rays showed amoeba-like shapes feeding off blood vessels, stealing oxygen.
Before your son, before your husband, your father was the first man you loved.
You bring in fresh flowers from the garden — roses and his favorite pink camellias cut from the bush you and he potted and repotted forty years ago. You put these arrangements beside his water glass so he can see them. As he gets thinner and paler, the room grows warmer and more intimate, the windows shaded by the spring growth outside. You read poetry and the Psalms to him against the background noise of birds singing and his slowed breathing. His room feels like a church: sacred. You come and go on tiptoe carrying trays. A spoon against a cup sounds like an altar boy’s bell.
Bluegrass musician Earl Scruggs dies, and you don’t tell your father the news. Instead you tell him about the woman you know who makes a fudge cake with buttermilk and Coca-Cola. You talk with an exaggerated Southern accent. You make him smile.
With scissors you cut open his T-shirts so they are easier to get on and off. You swallow hard as you do this.
You stop freezing food. Then you stop cooking altogether, because you realize that whatever you make, he won’t be able to eat it.
When he can no longer talk or walk or hold his head up, when he can barely swallow, he sleeps. You train yourself to breathe when he breathes so that you are in sync. You want to go through what he is going through. You hold your breath and count — sometimes well past a minute — until he inhales again.
It’s Monday, late morning, and you are with him in the pale-yellow room with the ocean-like sound of the wind blowing the oaks in the yard. You get up from your chair and climb into his bed beside him, kiss his cool fingers, read to him from the Psalms, sing that song about the wings of a snow-white dove. You say, “I love you,” over and over. You put your head next to his. His breath is not foul but sweet, like a baby’s. You feel his hand on top of your head, as though he is blessing you. This is how he says, I love you, too.
Outside, spring unfolds.
You think you can feel the peace in this room. A line from Matthew comes to you: “Forgive us as we forgive . . .” Something is happening here with the light and the birds and the wind outdoors: a transformation from despair to readiness. You call for your mother.
Let her take your place beside him. Don’t look away. Stay. Hold his other hand. Listen for his final breath. Feel him leave you. Weep with your mother. Don’t say anything when she can’t stop talking: “It’s like he’s gotten into the car, and he’s backing out of the garage, and he’s not waiting up for me.” Don’t try to stop her when she sobs into his chest and says, “Oh, Jimmy, don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me here.”
Open the window. Watch the lilacs shake as he goes.
In the few hours after he dies, you sit with him. It’s all you can do. You guard him. You watch the subtle changes in his face as his mouth gradually smiles. You know you’re not seeing things.
In order to bury him next to his parents in Mississippi, you must fly on a different plane than his body, and it feels strange, being away from the person you tended to so carefully. You felt the same way the first time you were separated from your baby boy.
You discover that when we die, we leave pieces of ourselves behind: voices on answering machines, images on film, signatures on paper. You continue to find reminders of your father months later: The gloves in his coat pocket. A receipt from that last time you had lunch together at the Buttercup. The mint he meant to give you. Copies of The New York Review of Books stacked by his bedside. A pen from the funeral home in your purse. News of his last business deal. A story about how he aced all his high-school math tests. His deodorant, which you will use for a full year after he is gone.
You dream he gets better. He calls and tells you the market is up twenty-five points. You tell him about a student. It’s hard to hear. You lose the connection, then call back, ask him if he needs anything. “Not a thing,” he says.